HISTORICAL NOTES ON ERSKINE AND AMERICAN CHURCH
The United Church of Canada was formed in 1925 when most of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches in Canada underwent formal union. This now comprises the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
The Erskine and American Church was formed in 1934 by the amalgamation of two churches, each of which had voted to take part in the union. The roots of this congregation are closely associated with the history and development of early Montreal.
The American Presbyterian congregation was organized in 1823 by dissenting members of the then St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, which was made up largely of immigrant Scots. After the War of 1812, Americans in Montreal increased in numbers and their natural preference for American ministers led them to leave St. Andrew’s to form the American Presbyterian Society of Montreal. The first services of this Society were held in the Wesleyan Chapel on St. James Street, which was rented for the year of 1823. The next year the congregation met in a church on St. Peter Street.
In 1824 the Church was enrolled in the New York Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and this arrangement continued for a hundred years. For many years the ministers of the newly-formed congregation were graduates of Princeton and Yale Universities.
The first church built by the American Presbyterian congregation was completed in 1826 at the north-east corner of St. James Street (St. Jacques) and Haymarket (Victoria) Square. The Bank of Nova Scotia stands there now. The plans for the new church, chosen in December of 1824, had been submitted by James O’Donnell, a distinguished architect from New York, who had settled in Montreal earlier that year. In 1823 O’Donnell had described preliminary plans for a cathedral to the wardens of Notre-Dame and, in 1829, under his supervision, Montreal’s magnificent Notre-Dame Cathedral on Place d’Armes was completed.
In 1863 a new building for the American Church was deemed necessary and a site on the south-east corner of Dorchester (René Lévesque) and Drummond was purchased. This was later the site of the Provincial Bus Terminal and, presently, that of the IBM Marathon Building. The cornerstone was laid in April of 1865 and the new sanctuary was dedicated in 1866. The congregation worshipped there until 1934 when it amalgamated with the Erskine Church on Sherbrooke Street West.
Erskine Church was founded in 1833 and takes its name from Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, leaders of the Secession Church in Scotland in the 18th century. In 1835 the congregation, which had been worshipping in Mr. Bruce’s Academy on McGill St. or in the American Church, obtained a site on Lagauchetière St. at Chêneville. They built a small stone church which was known as the Scottish Secession Chapel. (The building still stands, though in a somewhat enlarged and altered form, and is now the Chinese Catholic Church.) The Congregation prospered and, in 1866, moved to the south-east corner of Peel and Ste. Catherine Streets where they worshipped until 1894. (The Dominion Square Building was later built on that site.) During this period the congregation guaranteed the support of two women missionaries and fifteen of its members served in the overseas fields. The present Presbyterian Theological College held its first classes in the Sunday School room of Erskine in 1867 and the facilities of the church were available in emergencies to other churches of all denominations.
For fifty years the Erskine Church was part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada but, in 1925, the members voted to join the United Church of Canada. The Erskine Church had taken a very active part in previous church unions. Rev. William Taylor, who was its minister from 1833 to 1876, was the first moderator of the Canadian Presbyterian Church, a union of the various strains of Presbyterianism and Free Churches. The first Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada met in Erskine Church in 1875.
The very impressive church building on Ste. Catherine Street eventually became inadequate for the growing congregation and the area was becoming more and more commercialized. The decision was taken to move, and the site at the north-east corner of Sherbrooke Street and Ontario Ave. (Ave. du Musée) was purchased. The cornerstone for the present church was laid in August of 1893 and the first service in the completed building was held on Sunday, September 30, 1894.
When the American Presbyterian Church amalgamated with the Erskine Church in 1934, the present Erskine and American United Church was formed. This congregation inherited the traditions and history of both the earlier churches. In 1937 the American Church property on Dorchester St. was sold and it was decided to make extensive renovations to the interior of the original Erskine church. Part of the proceeds of the sale of the American Church was used for this purpose. (The balance of $50,000 was given to the Montreal Church Extension Fund.)
The architect of the present building was Mr. A.C. Hutchison, who visited several American cities in search of possible models for the new Erskine Church. The overall design decided upon was the wide-domed Byzantine type. Its architectural ancestors may be seen at Tercello, near Venice, and throughout Asia Minor. The attention of architects turned to this type of building in the middle of the last century, and the general structural plan of this church is a reaction to that influence. The strong, solid form and imposing nobility of line that characterized Romanesque architecture can be seen in the design and lines on the exterior, while the interior has the great arches and stately rhythms of the ancient Roman basilica, as well as the rounded dome characteristic of the Byzantine style. The building thus draws on the classical styles of both Roman and Byzantine, but is modified for modern requirements.
As originally designed, the church had a central pulpit as the focal point with choir and organ behind it, immediately to the right of the present chancel. The gallery extended to the present pulpit. When it was remodelled, in 1938, the basic change was the construction of the chancel containing the organ, the choir stalls and the communion table, with the pulpit at the side. This new focal point necessitated changing the direction of the pews some 45° anti-clockwise, and the gallery was reduced in size.
At the front of the sanctuary, the illuminated Greek cross was placed on the wall to share the central point of vision with the communion table. The I.H.S. in the centre designates the Greek name of Jesus. The sense of the transcendent and the Crucified and Risen Lord are manifested by the Cross of Thorns and the Rays of Glory, symbolizing Christ’s authority. At the same time, a small separate chapel was constructed to which access was made available from the side entrance on Ontario Ave. (now Ave. du Musée).
The architect for this remodelling was Percy Nobbs, former head of the School of Architecture at McGill and, later, Professor of Design. All the lettering design was done by his son.
Also at this time, the Tiffany windows, which had been installed in the American Church on Dorchester and Drummond in 1902, were transferred to their present places in the west and east walls of the sanctuary, as well as in the chapel. These windows are among the best examples of the work of the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany of New York and constitute one of the largest collections of religious stained glass from this studio.
Other windows of note include those in the narthex, portraying Biblical flowers and plants, and the three windows on the stair landing by C.W. Kelsey, a Montreal glass-maker. They, too, are now highly esteemed. Also notable are the windows by Peter Haworth, R.C.A., O.S.A., another well-known Canadian Artist. These are located in the balcony, in particular, the large demi-lune sectional area and the panels below it on the south wall. The windows in the vestibule inscribed “Faith, Hope and Charity” are by an unknown artist.
The marble in the chancel is from Carrara, Italy. Etruscan Red is used on the pulpit and the baptismal font while Verd Antique forms the chancel steps. The work was done by a company called Smith Marble in 1937.
Of particular interest in the chancel is the teak wood panelling and the small medallions with symbols from the Catacombs and the early Medieval Christian churches. Each symbol tells a story with a sign linking the present church to Christian worship through the ages.
The Neo-Romanesque architecture, which helps to give Erskine and American a unique and important role in preserving the rich heritage of Sherbrooke Street, has been widely acclaimed in architectural studies of Montreal. The building is one of the oldest structures in Montreal’s famous “Square Mile”.
This church came into being during a period of strife, riots, rebellion, sedition and poverty, but it has not yet failed in its duty and its faith. Among the names appearing on the membership lists of the Erskine and American archives are a number of men and women who have not only served their church, but have formed the musical heritage which has contributed to the high quality of church music in the city.
As Erskine and American Church celebrates the Centenary of its heritage building on Sherbrooke Street, it faces the challenge of an uncertain future. The financial costs of maintaining its property, while providing spiritual leadership and outreach services to the community, had exceeded its resources. By calling on its members and friends for financial assistance and by adapting and sharing its building to encompass a wider cultural and musical vocation, the church is confident that means will be found to secure its future well into the next century.
Notes from various sources
Compiled by Betty Coffey. Oct. 1993